President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday authorized a two-month suspension for Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, recommended by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.
When Choo requested the disciplinary action, she said Yoon’s offenses were grave. Yet the punishment was much weaker than anticipated.
The disciplinary committee effectively admitted it could not impose a heavy penalty because the allegations were unconvincing. It may have feared a strong public backlash, or the court overturning its decision, if Yoon had been dismissed or suspended for a longer time.
It is a grave matter to discipline the prosecutor general. But related procedures were unfair, and grounds for disciplinary action unconvincing and unsubstantial.
The disciplinary panel found Yoon responsible for three of the six offenses he was accused of. But all six suspicions had already been thrown out by the ministry’s inspection committee and the Seoul Administrative Court.
In one controversial case involving a journalist, Yoon instructed the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to take counsel from an advisory panel. Then Choo deprived Yoon of his right to command the investigation and accused him unjustly of obstructing both that investigation and a related inspection by the ministry.
Choo argues that the journalist colluded with a prosecutor loyal to Yoon to attempt to coerce the jailed chief executive of an investment firm into offering negative information about a well-known polemist who supported Moon. However, the district prosecutors’ office has found no evidence yet that incriminates the prosecutor.
Yoon once said he was considering ways to serve the people after retirement. He recently topped polls assessing possible presidential hopefuls, though he had asked pollsters to exclude him from their surveys.
The committee concluded that Yoon violated political neutrality because he did not clarify that he would not engage in politics. This is a ridiculous and arbitrary interpretation.
The allegation that Yoon ordered the surveillance of judges trying important cases is far-fetched. Most of the data is open to the public, and rumors about judges were gathered from prosecutors attending trials. A prosecutor who reviewed the data found nothing illegal, but her superior -- a person close to the justice minister -- allegedly deleted that opinion. Even judges took no issue with the data.
Choo and the ruling party have pressed Yoon to resign because he pushed investigations into figures close to Moon.
The prosecution probed allegations that Cheong Wa Dae systematically intervened to ensure the successful election of an old friend of Moon’s as Ulsan mayor; influenced the Energy Ministry’s intentional undervaluation of the refurbished Wolsong-1 reactor, apparently to satisfy Moon’s nuclear phaseout policy; and played a role in private equity fund frauds that may have involved scores of figures in the ruling camp.
The grounds for punitive action against Yoon were unreasonable, and the panel was composed of figures who could be expected to make unfair decisions. The disciplinary proceedings were more like a plot to expel him.
The suspension of Yoon set a bad precedent that shows the justice minister can neutralize the prosecutor general’s authority through inspections and disciplinary action. It also shows that if the prosecution investigates those in power, it can be punished.
The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials is expected to be operational in about two months. Now that the ruling party has eliminated the opposition party’s right to veto candidates, Moon will likely appoint a figure loyal to him to head the new agency.
The CIO will take over all cases involving high-ranking officials, including those appointed by Moon. Then, investigations into them may be stalled.
While Yoon is suspended, the ministry is likely to disband a team that is investigating the Wolsong-1 case.
Yoon appealed the disciplinary measure, asking the court to suspend the execution of the suspension. The disciplinary action is not Yoon’s personal matter. Political power violated the rule of law, a pillar of democracy that should be protected. The court must proceed with Yoon’s appeal quickly and rule strictly according to legal principles and evidence.